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How to Fix a Water Heater Pilot Light

Replacing the thermocouple usually does the trick.

Pilot light won't stay lit how to light a pilot lightFamily Handyman
If your hot water heater suddenly stops working, chances are a bad thermocouple has shut off the gas to the pilot light. Replacement is an easy DIY repair.

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Time
Instant!
Complexity
Simple
Cost
Under $20

Replace the Thermocouple

What is a Thermocouple?

A thermocouple senses the heat of the pilot and allows gas to flow to the burner. A bad thermocouple will shut off gas to both the pilot and the burner so the pilot light won’t stay lit.

Photo 1: Unscrew the Nuts

Turn off the control valve and the shutoff. Remove the burner access covers and unscrew the nuts on the gas, pilot and thermocouple lines.

Shutoff valve

Be sure to turn the shutoff valve to the off position, as in this photo, before beginning work on the thermocouple.

Photo 2: Remove the Assembly

Pull out the water heater pilot light burner assembly. Pull out the old thermocouple. Buy a new one that matches the old one in size and length.

Photo 3: New Thermocouple

Install the new thermocouple exactly like the old water heater pilot light, slide the burner assembly back in and reattach the three lines to the control valve.

How to light a water heater pilot

No hot water? If you have a natural or propane gas water heater, chances are the pilot has gone out. The water heater pilot light is a small flame that ignites the gas burner on your water heater. When the water heater pilot light goes out, first try relighting it, following the directions on the water heater label. If the pilot doesn’t relight, if it goes out right after lighting or if the pilot light keeps going out by far the most common cause is a bad thermocouple. The good news: You can usually replace a thermocouple for minimal cost and in less than an hour. You’ll get your hot water going without waiting for a pro to show up and save the cost of a service call for a gas water heater repair. Read on to learn how to light a pilot light.

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How to Replace a Thermocouple

To replace the thermocouple, follow the photo series. Be sure to turn off the shutoff valve in the gas line; that is, one quarter turn so that the handle is at a right angle to the pipe. Since working room is tight around the burner, we recommend that you simply unscrew the three nuts at the control valve and pull out the entire burner assembly. You’ll see either a slot or clips that hold it in place (Photo 2). Then either unscrew the thermocouple end or pull it out (depending on the water heater) and take it with you to an appliance parts store to find a match. Position it exactly like the old one. When relit, the water heater pilot light flame should wrap around the thermocouple bulb.

To reattach the three lines to the gas valve, thread the nuts into place with your fingers and hand-tighten them. Then snug them up with a quarter to half revolution with a wrench. The metals are soft, so don’t over tighten.

Be sure to test for gas leaks. You must have the pilot lit and the burner on for this test so that gas is flowing through the large tube. Reopen the shutoff valve, relight the pilot, then turn the control valve to “on”. When the gas burner comes on, use a 50/50 dish soap/water mix to test the screw joints for air bubbles that indicate leaks.

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CAUTION!

You should not be able to smell gas during this operation (except for a slight whiff when you remove the gas lines). If you do, leave the house and call your gas utility.

When Not to Replace the Thermocouple

Some gas water heaters have a “closed” burner chamber, which is difficult to access. We recommend that you call a service pro to fix this type. Also, some gas water heaters don’t have pilots. Let the pros fix these as well.

Required Tools for this how to light a pilot light Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

  • 4-in-1 screwdriver
  • Adjustable wrench
  • Wrench set

Required Materials for this how to light a pilot light Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here’s a list.

  • Dish soap
  • Long matches
  • Thermocouple